The effect of publicity images
For Berger, the term 'publicity images' has the same meaning as 'advertising images'. He points out that they surround us, and that this is unique to modern society. These visual messages last only for a moment, both in terms of how long we look at them and in terms of how frequently they need to be updated. Despite this, they do not refer to the present but to the future.
We see these images so frequently we now take them for granted. Although we usually pass these images, we have the sense of them continually passing us, so they are seen as dynamic and we seem static.
These images are justified in terms of an economic system that, in theory, benefits the public (the consumer), by stimulating consumption and as a result, the economy. Although tied to the concept of free choice, the freedom to buy this brand or another, the whole system of publicity is based on one proposal: that we can change our lives for the better if we buy something. Despite having spent our money, our lives will be richer by possessing more.
Envy, glamour and publicity
Berger sees a relationship between envy, glamour and publicity. Publicity shows us people whose lives have been transformed by consumption and so have become enviable. Being enviable makes the person glamorous, and publicity manufactures glamour.
Publicity starts by working on the natural appetite for pleasure, something that is real. It does not, however, offer the pleasure as it is. Rather it promises happiness, happiness gained by being envied by others, and this is glamour. It is not therefore offering the pleasure in itself. The better the publicity, the more the spectator is aware of what they are missing. Yet this glamour is very solitary.
Being envied depends on your not sharing your experience with those that envy you. This explains the impersonal and unfocused look of many glamour images. The buyers imagine themselves transformed by buying the product and envy this transformed self. In effect, the publicity image has lowered the spectators' selfesteem and offers it back if they buy the product.
The relationship between oil painting and publicity images
There is a direct relationship between oil painting and publicity images, which has been obscured by cultural prestige. Publicity images often make direct reference to past art, either by copying it in some way, or by incorporating the art into the publicity image. This 'quoting' of art achieves two things. Art is associated with wealth and beauty, and the publicity image benefits from this. Art also has cultural authority, which makes it superior to mere materialism. This use of art allows the publicity image to promote two almost contradictory things, spiritual or cultural refinement and consumerism. Publicity understands the link in oil painting between the work of art and the spectator-owner and uses these to flatter the spectator-buyer.
There is, however, a much deeper link to oil painting. The composition and visual signs used are very similar. Berger cites a list of examples:
-The models' gestures
-The romantic use of nature with connotations of innocence
-The use of the Mediterranean
-Stereotypical women, e.g. serene mother (madonna), hostess (spectator-owner's wife),sex- object (Venus)
-Materials indicating luxury (metal, fur, leather etc.)
-The frontal arrangement of lovers for the benefit of the viewer
-The sea, suggesting new life
-Wealth and virility conveyed by the stance of men
-Perspective used to offer mystery
-Drinking equated with success
-The mounted knight as motorist.
For Berger, publicity is the culture of the consumer society and there are reasons why it draws on oil painting:
-Firstly, oil painting celebrated private property; it expressed the idea that you are
what you have. For this reason, publicity has not replaced post-Renaissance art,it is an extension of it.
-Secondly, it is nostalgic because its references to quality are bound to the past and
the traditional. If it spoke in contemporary terms it would be neither confident nor credible.
-Thirdly, it exploits the traditional education of the average spectator-buyer.
Publicity does not need to make specific or accurate historical references; in fact it is preferable that it does not.
-Fourthly, colour photography and oil painting are very similar in their ability to produce a sense of tactile reality to the spectator, reinforcing the sense of actually owning the thing (in the case of the spectator-owner), or the possibility of owning it (in the case of the spectator-buyer).
There is a fundamental difference between oil painting and publicity. Oil painting starts with facts, i.e. he already owns what is shown. It confirms the status of the spectator-owner and boosts his ego. Publicity diminishes the spectator-owner's ego, it makes him dissatisfied with his life (but not society). The spectator-owner made money out of the market, the spectator-buyer is the market and has money made out of him at two levels, as a worker and then as a buyer.
Publicity works on the fear that if you have nothing you are nothing. To overcome this anxiety, the consumer must have money. 'Money is life . . . in the sense that it is the token of and key to every human capacity. The power to spend money is the power to live.' (p. 143).
Oil painting gave a permanent record of a real, successful present to be passed down to future generations. For publicity, the present has to be insufficient. The short lived publicity image claims not that you are desirable or successful, but that you will be. Sexuality is used, either explicitly or implicitly, by publicity to sell things.
The message it conveys is that being able to buy is the same as being sexually desirable, or loveable.
Function of publicity
How does publicity remain credible if it never delivers happiness? It does so by being relevant to the fantasies of the spectator-buyer, so again it is divorced from reality.
Berger returns to the notion of glamour, which he states is a modern invention. In the past, there were notions of grace and elegance etc. but these were in essence different. People portrayed with these characteristics were not dependent on other people's envy to have these characteristics.
For glamour to exist, envy needs to be a widespread emotion. Berger argues that the industrial society creates the right conditions for this to happen, as it is not yet fully democratic. It recognises the right of individuals to pursue individual happiness, yet it creates a situation where the individual feels powerless. The individual is trapped between what he is and what he would like to be. There are two responses to this: the individual remains subject to envy and feelings of helplessness and escapes by day dreaming, which is exploited by publicity; or the individual becomes politically active and tries to overthrow capitalism.
Berger sees publicity as a substitute for democracy. Instead of making significant political choices, the individual asserts their individuality by choosing what to buy.
This compensates for, and hides the lack of democracy in society. Publicity is a kind of philosophical system, as it explains things in its own terms.
Publicity and the world
The whole world is a setting for publicity, and it is a world beyond conflict, able even to translate revolution into its own terms. Yet there is a harsh contrast between the real world and publicity's world. At times, this becomes very obvious and Berger cites the example of a magazine using harsh images of third world poverty alongside publicity images. This raises a number of issues, among them the cynicism of the culture that shows these images alongside one another. Berger does not wish to emphasise the moral shock. He points out that even advertisers recognise it and tone their images down as a result.
Berger argues that the contrast between the news or feature photographs and the publicity images would be just as great if the former were about a happy event.
What provides the contrast is that 'Publicity is essentially eventless... situated in a
future continually deferred.' (p. 153). It replaces events with tangibility, and everything it shows is waiting to be acquired. This power to acquire is all that publicity recognises. In capitalism, all hopes are mixed together and simplified.
The spectator-purchaser is offered vague but magical promises that these hopes will be met through purchases.
Without publicity, capitalism would not survive, and it can only survive by forcing the majority of people, '. . . whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible . . . by imposing a false standard of what is and is not desirable . . .' (p. 154).
---Basic Critical Theory for Photographers---
Ashley la Grange
Listening to: Pumpkins
Reading: Berger, John
Watching: somebody deviantart page